The Joel Klein Exit Interview

Joel Klein (Dario Cantatore, Getty Images)

Freakonomics Radio

Exit Interview: Schools Chancellor, NYC: Joel I. Klein spent the past eight years running the biggest school system in the country. So what’d he learn?

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The new episode of our Freakonomics Radio podcast (you can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed or listen live via the link in box at right) also introduces a new format: the exit interview. This week’s guest: outgoing New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein. (If you have suggestions for future exit interview subjects, be they well-known or simply interesting, please let us know in the comments below.)

Courtesy: Joel Klein Chancellor’s best friend?

Klein?spent the past eight years running the country’s biggest school system. He came to the job as an education outsider, having spent most of his career as a Washington lawyer, including stints at the Department of Justice and in the Clinton White House. He is leaving the schools job to run a new education unit for Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp., where he will get a nice little bump in pay. Besides the salary increase, Klein acknowledged he left the schools job so he and his wife could spend more time with their beloved dog, Roger.

Klein’s tenure as schools chancellor was eventful, to say the least. He eliminated community districts; closed low-performing schools and opened up lots of new ones (including many charter schools, which he put his full weight behind); tangled repeatedly with the teachers’ union; and changed the shape of the relationship of the Department of Education with its teachers, parents and students. He was also eager to experiment, whether with pay-for-grades schemes or the School of One program we discussed in an earlier podcast.

DESCRIPTION The School of One pilot program, which creates a learning “playlist” for every student.

Klein was a pretty candid interview subject. He made it plain that for all the battles he fought, and even won, there are still a lot of obstacles to turning public education into a performance-based enterprise:

I was able to see this in a way that I think people who grew up inside the system were unlikely to see it. Before there was Freakonomics, I actually believed in incentives and thought that they affect the way organizations work. It just seemed to me that everything in K-12 education was misaligned. We incentivize all the wrong things.

Klein is being replaced by Cathleen Black – who, like Klein, comes to the job from outside the realm of education (she was chairwoman of Hearst Magazines). This has been a noisy issue but Klein says it shouldn’t be:

I used to say that the managing partner of a law firm necessarily shouldn’t be a lawyer. Lawyers are not steeped in management, in human capital and creating incentives and creating an organization that is a problem-solving organization – those are not the things that people have been trained to do. You can be a great teacher and actually a poor principal. One of the things that always struck me is we thought people had to be a teacher first before you can be a principal. Why shouldn’t there be people who can come in who have the management skills, appoint a strong deputy, put together a team and get the work done?

In the podcast, Klein also grades himself on the various aspects of his job. His worst performance? Public relations, he says.

Audio Transcript

Stephen DUBNER:  I have been told that really this whole leaving the job is just really all about spending more time with the dog.   

[Man laughing] 

[Female voice] From American Public media and WNYC, this is the Freakonomics Radio exit interview.  Have a seat.  Here’s your host Stephen Dubner.  

DUBNER:  Joel Klein spent the last 8 plus years running the New York City Public School system.  It’s the largest system in the country.  1.1 million students, 16 hundred schools, a 23 billion dollar budget.  He spent much of his career as a high voltage Washington lawyer arguing cases before the Supreme Court, fighting antitrust battles for the Department of Justice and serving as Deputy Counsel to President Bill Clinton.  He also had a brief stint in the media business heading up US operations for Burdlesman and now he’s heading back to the media business as executive Vice President in charge of educational ventures for news corp.  Klein’s tenure as school’s chancellor was very eventful.  So what did he learn?   

Chancellor Klein, welcome to our exit interview as you surely know many firms conduct an exit interview when an employee is leaving to find out their experiences so I just want to stress that you’re here of your own accord, this is not mandatory, you should feel free to be candid.  Nothing you say here will be used against you, will be forwarded to future employers unless of course they’re listening to this program so you’re okay with that, are you ready to proceed? 

Chancellor Joel KLEIN I’m ready 

DUBNER: Alright, so after 8 years as Chancellor of the New York City school system you are resigning, you’re leaving us.  Why? 

KLEINI don’t know, I think I had planned to do it for 8 years when I started, this is sort of what I talked to the Mayor about.  I faced the decision really before the Mayor’s reelection whether I wanted to stick around for the full term or not, he asked me to stay through the election and we kind of agreed on that.  I’m ready and you know, it’s hard to say exactly what that means.  I feel like I’ve done the things I should, I think the city would benefit from bringing in a new Chancellor who will have 3 years working with the Mayor on this and as far as I’m concerned I’ve always wanted to have a career after this and I found a job I’m very excited about. 

DUBNER:  Now you came to the job as Chancellor of Education New York City Schools with a great interest in education, K to 12 education with a robust set of beliefs in what was right and what was wrong but not as a veteran educator so what was that like for you coming in to take a professional job running schools, 1.1 million kids, a massive, massive job in something that you had not worked in before.  How did that experience unfurl?   

KLEINI think it had its complications as well as its benefits and I think that’s inevitable.  I was able to see this in a way that I think people who grew up inside the system were unlikely to see it.  I mean, before there was Freakonomics I actually believed in incentives and thought that they affect the way organizations work and it just seemed to me everything indicated to how education was misaligned.  We incentivized all the wrong things and so that was something I think coming from the outside you could see.  On the other hand, I didn’t pretend to be some great expert on learning theory or development of the brain or certainly what it was like day to day in the trenches.  I taught for a short period of time, I taught a lot actually law school but I had taught 6th grade math way, way back when but didn’t pretend to be a veteran teacher in any way.  It seemed to me the greatest disadvantage was it enabled critics to say he’s not an educator.  That I think is a mistake.  I think because somebody’s taught for a few years or 5 years or 10 years, I don’t think qualifies them to run a huge complex organization.  In fact, I always used to say I didn’t think that the managing partner of a law firm necessarily should be a lawyer.  Lawyers are not steeped in management, in human capital and creating incentives and creating an organization that ‘s a problem solving organization.  Those are not the things that people are trained to do.  You can be a great teach and actually a poor principal.  I mean, one of the things that always struck me is people had to be a teacher first before you become a Principal.  It seemed to me to make no sense.  Why shouldn’t there people who can come in who have the management skills appoint a strong deputy, put together a team and get the work done.   

DUBNER:  A couple people who have worked for you discussed the fact that a lot of management positions in the Department of Ed were filled by people from a corporate or consulting background as opposed to typically typical schools and typical in New York City education veterans.  Why?  Why did you do that and how did it work? 

KLEINSo I did it because I wanted to mix of skills.  I mean, I hired a lot of people from business schools.  I mean, it’s 23 billion dollar organization, why would we think that a social studies teacher would be the primary person to do budgets.  Why would we think a social studies teacher would be the primary person to do human resources.  You need human resource policies, recruitment policies so I wanted people who came from different backgrounds, second of all, I wanted people who really were part of a performance culture, who really thought that excellence and driving themselves and pushing forward and I wanted them to come from whatever background.  I’ve got more in my current cabinet now, I’ve got more senior educators than anybody else ever had.  I’ve got probably 4 people that have got maybe 150-180 years among them in the system but I’ve also got some people who come from a very different background.  That’s the way you assemble the team.  But where I could find talent, whether if ti was from the business schools or the law schools or the Kennedy school or even occasionally school of economics, I would go for these people and bring them in.   

DUBNER:  You sound as if you feel that you’ve accomplished an awful lot.  There are a lot of people who would second that, that you’ve accomplished an awful lot, tried a lot of things, failed at some but kept trying others and so on but how does your feeling now about your accomplishment compare with your expectation of that accomplishment. 

KLEINI feel good about it but you know, I think if you ask me, there are still some of these arcane rules that make no sense.  We’re looking throughout America at layoffs.  State and municipal government, they’re in trouble economically.  They looking at layoffs.  It’s hard to look you in the eye and say we’re going to do layoffs last in, firs tout.  I mean, that is by definition not going to get us the right teachers.  Nobody thinks that…and I’m not saying, we’ve got some veteran teachers who are terrific and we should keep them around.  They might be our first priority to mentor others but only group think says all veteran teachers are better than all the new teachers, the recent teachers that you’ve recruited.  So that kind of rule drives me nuts.  I spend over 100 million dollars right now as we’re talking on a group of people who can’t get hired as full time teachers in the system and they do basically substitute teaching but I don’t need substitute teachers that I pay for full time teachers so there are rules like that.  Rules in terms of some of the technology and the other things you talked about with the School of One where these arcane regulations that I wish didn’t exist and I still wish every single family in this city had at least one choice that nobody had to take whatever the school system served up.  Middle Class people, friends of yours would never agree to a school system in which they automatically went to the neighborhood school, whether it was good, bad or indifferent and yet poor people who don’t have the options can’t move, can’t afford private school, poor people we say to them just take one and you’re done whether it’s good or bad and it seems to me competition even in an incomplete fashion will help drive forward the system.  We made a lot of progress in that regard but I think there’s more we could have made.   

DUBNER:  Alright, let’s dial it back then; pretend you’re walking in, it’s 8 years ago, 8 ½ years ago and you know then what you know now and you’re driven by this desire to be bolder…tell me a couple things you’d do off the bat if you were staring over? 

KLEINWell one of the things now I would do off the bat, I would be much more heavily invested in these technology and learning platforms.  A simple little thing, I’ve now seen a whole bunch of students working with a tutor online and they’re texting away and it’s working, I mean, I talk to the kids, I see the results so that’s something we should have done more.  

DUBNER: Were you reluctant to believe in that kind of use of technology coming out the gate? 

KLEIN: I wasn’t but there were rules when you started.  Basically you had one teacher, you know, etc. etc., I mean, you could make the argument that using those tutors is violation of the contract or something like that but I would have pushed those things a lot harder.  I would have spoken out even more than I did on some of these arcane rules that make no sense.   

DUBNER:  If there’s been (9:22) in your administration, in your term probably most people would say it’s the Teacher’s Union.  There’s all kinds of competing issues.  How did you do then, in your view, with the Teacher’s Union, how did you do? 

KLEIN: I think we did okay, we got some important things done, we eliminated forced placements so that schools could hire people, we didn’t dramatically change the tenure rules which I think need dramatically being changed both in terms of who gets tenure and what tenure means in this system.  I think we’ve got to professionalize teaching and it’s still too much of a trade union assembly line Detroit model and we’ve got to move that.  And I always like to say about the Teacher’s Union and my relationship, it’s like that old song, you know, The Glory of Love, you give a little, you take a little and you let your poor heart break a little.  That’s the story of, that’s glory of love.  That’s the story of and glory of labor management relations in the public sector.   

DUBNER:  Coming up we ask the Chancellor to grade himself on how he ran New York City schools.   


[Female voice] We’re back with the Freakonomics Radio Exit Interview.  Here’s your host Stephen Dubner. 

DUBNER:  We’re talking to Joel Klein who last week ended his 8 year run as New York City School’s Chancellor.  You oversaw or undertook directly a lot of change.  There was eliminating community districts, there was putting you weight behind charter schools and all kinds of programs, pilot programs like School of One that we’ve talked to you about before, closing low performing schools, opening up a lot of new schools and especially changing really the shape of the relationship between the Department of Ed with teachers and the relationship with parents the relationship with students so I’d like you to give yourself a couple grades for me.  I’ll let you break it down how you want.  There are administrative tasks, there are public relations, there are in the classroom tasks, there are financial tasks so tell me how you think you did in the different major departments that you were responsible for? 

KLEINSo I think administratively we ran the department well, made some errors in that, some serious administrative errors but I think overall I’d give ourselves a good grade on that.   

DUBNER:  A good grade being what?  A B+? 

KLEINB+, A-.  I think on leadership which is really the overall realm, there I think we get an A.  I think it’s the most comprehensive, most integrated education reform in the country.  I don’t have any doubt about that.  You know, there were pieces throughout the country, some of them going on right now, others, but in terms of an 8 year run and restructuring the culture, restructuring the components, that’s what I thought the most important piece we did that.  In the public relations I would have to mark us down some.  It’s not about public relations, I mean, people say you don’t listen but that’s not true, I listened, I disagreed with a lot of people, I didn’t do as good enough job explaining to people why I thought for example closing the school that was persistently failing children was something we needed to do.   

DUBNER: Um, you’ve had some interesting jobs in the past.  You’ve worked in the White House, the Department of Justice, Bertelsmann; how did this compare? 

KLEINThis is the best.  You know, this was my passion, it was my thing and I wanted to do it.  I’ve had great jobs, I mean, I loved the Clinton White House, (12:50) was terrific, I practiced long before the United States Supreme Court is an appellate advocate, I tried a lot of cases in my time.  This thing was my thing and you know, I believed, I trained all my life for it and I believe it was as rewarding as anything I could have done.   

DUBNER:  Alright, and final question; I understand that you have a dog that you love very much, a Shih Tzu yes?   

KLEINYes I do.   

DUBNER:  What is this Shih Tzu’s name? 

KLEINThe Shih Tzu’s name is Roger.  

DUBNER:  Roger, it’s a male?  

KLEIN: It’s a male. 

DUBNER:  And I have been told by people with whom you work quite closely that really this whole thing, this whole leaving the job as Chancellor of New York City Public Schools is just really all about spending more time with the dog.  

KLEIN[Laughing]  Well, the truth is, it’s really about spending more time with the dogs mother, my wife who is the person that I really want to spend more time and the two of us will spend more time with Roger.  But you know, Roger is moving into his adolescence now and as you probably know, dogs in their adolescence need a lot of time so we’re going to give him the appropriate focus he needs 

DUBNER: I wish you the best of luck and thanks for stopping by. 

KLEIN: Thank you, it’s a pleasure Steve.   




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  1. summus says:

    Klein had to leave before people realized that NY kids don’t work any harder and their parents don’t parent any better than when he began. The achievement numbers aren’t better, charter schools are being exposed as frauds, and public school teachers still get treated like dirt by everyone under the Sun who is angry and bitter about their own failed economic lives. When the liberal elitists and conservative religious nuts get done with us, we’ll have an educational system similar to Mexico’s.

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  2. liberaldonor says:

    Across this great land, especially in large urban school districts, children pass through metal detectors to learn. In many of our schools, our children are afraid and cohere with a small group for safety. Many children are afraid to go to the restroom alone and when they get there the stench and the filth plus the lack of toilet necessities make the room a health hazard. There is a tension in the building as adults and children wait for one gang member to slight another and full scale war erupts. Children bring firearms to school and shoot each other, the teachers or the administrators.

    Children do their homework completely, half heartedly or not at all. Wander through any department store or mall in America during school hours and be amazed at the numbers of school aged children wandering the same terrain, with parent or without.

    Several million children have arrived at the school door from another country since the 1980’s, most speaking no English, and have been lovingly instructed in their own language with a goal of transitioning them to all English classrooms.

    45 million people are on food stamps and they too send their children to school but few in the middle class, especially the white middle class, want to send their children to the schools those on food stamps attend. So, charter schools are given the task of further separating the poor from the rest of us turning a public educational system into a racist and classist system. Like the rest of America.

    But the right wing tells us the problems with public education are ineffective teachers and teachers’ unions. And as long as a gullible, unquestioning, anti-union public believes such nonsense, there will always be Joel Kleins and Michelle Rhees around to feed them even more.

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  3. Glenn says:

    We started falling behind other countries when we adopted all of the special education laws. It is impossible to teach with handicapped children dumped into the main classroom. It is hard enough to teach a classroom of kids the required curriculum without having to provide for varying disabilities – students who used to be taught in small classrooms with teachers trained to teach them. Throw in the discipline problems that would not be tolerated in other countries and the American classroom teachers have their hands tied. In addition, a few disruptive children are allowed to undermine the education of the majority. The average parent would be shocked to see what is allowed to go on in the classroom. The public educator is forced to deal with the bottom and let everyone else fend for themselves. Plus, for the student, it is human nature to see where the standard is and relax if you are above it. Catering to the lowest common denominator causes the majority to lower their own personal standards. Public schools are not allowed to operate like the real world but are bashed when they don’t perform like the real world.

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